Last-minute UNESCO lobbying brings SDG science success

UNESCO_United Nations_Bo Li
Copyright: United Nations/Bo Li

Speed read

  • Science and research ‘got a second chance’ after a ministerial breakfast
  • For example, R&D commitments were reinstated in the final draft
  • It now has a commitment to help poorer nations boost their science capacities

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Last-minute lobbying by UNESCO (the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) is said to have helped reinstate some of science and research commitments into the draft of the proposed Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) released this month (19 July).

The SDGs will replace the eight Millennium Development Goals after 2015. They are being drafted by an Open Working Group (OWG) of UN ambassadors.

The draft of the SDG ‘outcome document’ includes a goal of encouraging public and private research and development spending. This goal had been in the zero draft issued on 2 June, but was removed from a later version.

Two week-long sets of negotiations in June and July ended on 19 July after a 30-hour, overnight session. These culminated in 17 goals and 169 targets — down from 212 targets proposed in the zero draft — along with a stronger section on how to implement them.

Commitments to increase the ratio of R&D workers by 2030 and boosting R&D spending were reinstated but in a slightly watered-down form without a specific target for the latter.

Farooq Ullah, executive director of Stakeholder Forum, a civil society group that aims to advance sustainable development, says the language is weaker than it was in the zero draft.

“At this stage, it’s important to get things in. That is partly why delegates were willing to compromise to get it in, even in watered down form,” he says.

Ullah says the scientific community had been seeking to include more references to cross-cutting and integrated science and research throughout the document. Yet, he adds, some targets remain vague.

According to David Griggs, the director of the Monash Sustainability Institute at Monash University in Australia, who attended the June talks, research and innovation “was being seen as a means of implementation, not as a goal”, during the earlier part of the negotiations.

Key science clauses were dropped as delegates concentrated on other areas of the document, including poverty, equality, energy and food, says Griggs.

The science community managed to pull the situation back from the brink when UNESCO’s New York office organised a ‘ministerial breakfast’ on 15 July on the margins of the High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development meeting in New York, to press home the importance of SDGs backed by science and research.

“UNESCO used the opportunity to highlight the issue of science,” says one delegate.

“Science and research got a second chance.”

In June, the “many delegations [within the working group] were looking at specific goals and concentrating on that, but when they stepped back and looked at the document as a whole they realised something was missing”, says Felix Dodds, a fellow at the Global Research Institute at the University of North Carolina, United States, and a close observer of the drafting process.

There was no opposition among delegations to reinstating science, says Dodds.

Science and research is included elsewhere in the document, which now also includes a commitment to help developing countries “strengthen their scientific and technological capacities to move towards more sustainable patterns of consumption and production”.
It also commits to: boosting international cooperation on science and technology, technology transfer and knowledge sharing; getting the UN Technology Bank up and running by 2017; and enhancing capacity building support to developing countries on development data and statistical capacity.
“In the area of science and research, there are more mentions than in the previous [zero draft] text,” says Dodds. “But the next phase will be a big challenge.”
The outcome document has now been handed over to the UN General Assembly for discussion and adoption.

“We have to be realistic,” says Mark Stafford Smith, science director of the climate adaptation projects at Australia’s national science agency, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation. “This is now going to go into the maelstrom of a more political process.”

Link to SDG outcome document